198. Is Music Alive?

Most of my life I have been playing and appreciating music. Over the decades I have to admit there are times when I think music is alive. I feel the presence of a subject rather than an object. Some works appear to be communicating, revealing, and giving to me in ways that allow me to feel like I have established friends through ongoing and mysterious relationships. The more I take the time to listen to them the more I perceive and learn. Moreover, I have found myself relating to certain works as persons that deserve protection from forces that would use them for profit or without due appreciation. Here I think of a statement made by John Zorn in his notes to his 2010 recording What Thou Wilt:

“Music is a personal rite that has occupied my life for close to fifty years. There is something sacred and magical about it, and money seems insulting to both the process and the composition itself. But occasionally a commission comes in just at the birth of a new work, and the apparent synchronicity can be both exciting and energizing.” (my italics)

But, of course, I can also see that music has no subjectivity at all. The juxtaposition of these two views can be uncanny: something familiar (dead sound waves produced by dead instruments) becomes unfamiliar (music full of life that speaks) at the same time in unsettling ways. Literary critic and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton, in his book On Evil (Yale, 2000), refers to this juxtaposition as “the mystery of art”: “Art, too, is suspended between life and death.  The work of art seems full of vital energy, but it is no more than an inanimate object. The mystery of art is how black marks on a page, or pigment on a canvas, or the scraping of a bow on catgut, can be so richly evocative of life.” (71)

In this post I would like to sketch three approaches to unraveling this mystery as far as music is concerned.

(1) The subjectivity of music is completely projected by our minds.

Perhaps people who have had experiences like the ones I have had are imagining something that has no objective foundation outside the mind. The vitality of musical works are simply psychological projections and thus the mystery would be unraveled by understanding the mechanisms of those projections.

(2) The subjectivity of art is a function of a transaction between the perceiver’s imagination and objectively existing expressive properties in the work.

This approach of including both subjective and objective dimensions was first explored by St. Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225-1274) in his account of beauty. Aquinas argued beauty requires objective factors like proper function, proportion, and brightness. But these objective factors must please when seen and should calm our desires. So there is a subjective dimension as well. This two-fold approach to aesthetics became very popular during the Enlightenment when some thinkers, such as Francis Hutcheson, Edmund Burke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, argued we possess a faculty of taste that can be triggered by certain objective properties leading to an experience of beauty. And many modern philosophers have taken a similar approach.

For example, Mikel Dufrenne, in his The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (Northwestern, 1973), notes that, contrary to our experience of everyday objects, “The aesthetic object bears its meaning within itself and it is a world unto itself. We can understand this kind of object only by remaining close to it and constantly coming back to it…The aesthetic object is luminous through its very opacity – not by receiving an alien light by which a world is outlined, but by making its own light spring from itself in the act of expression. Thus we shall call the aesthetic object a “quasi-subject.” (146). Dufrenne argues that certain works have melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic components of their own which captivate our imagination and continue to do so the more we return to them. And these objective properties give us the experience of actually relating to something or, rather, someone.

Roger Scruton, in his book The Soul of the World (Princeton, 2014), explores similar ideas. Consider this passage: “When you dance to music, you understand the music as the source of the movement that flows through you. You are moving in sympathy with another intentional being, another source of life. Yet the thing you are dancing with is not alive, even if it is produced by someone alive. The life in the music is there by virtue of the fact that you can dance with it. The life in the music is the power to elicit a parallel life in you, the dancer. To put it another way: the life in the music is an imagined life, and the dance one way of imaging it.” (165) Note how Scruton begins by asserting that it is the music, rather than the listener, which is the source of life due to its power to elicit a response. And yet we wouldn’t have a work that is really alive; we would have a quasi-subject which would metaphorically live as long as we imaginatively engage with it. Dufrenne concurs: “This communion is indispensable. Without it, the aesthetic object is inert and meaningless” (228). Mark Rothko expressed something similar with reference to visual art which, take note, includes that concern for the work’s well-being which I mentioned above: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent.” Naturally, some works lack the necessary formal components to offer us much companionship. Superficial pop music, based on predictable, derivative, and simple structures, does not call us to return, investigate, and learn over the years. Musical works, just like people, can be superficial or profound and the degree of profundity will correlate with the degree of quasi-subjectivity we think they possess.

I think this view makes a great deal of sense and can supplement the projection theory in ways that do justice to our experience of the subjectivity of music without having to claim that music is really alive.

(3) The subjectivity of art is an expression of something truly alive to which we can relate.

However, my vivid experience of the liveliness of art as being there independent of my imaginative contributions has driven me to consider a set of far more controversial ideas which, upon consideration, can be connected into a three-part theistic proposal. First, consider the possibility that musical works are not identical to their physical manifestations. Second, think of these works as existing independently of human minds. And third, think of them not as abstract entities or types but as forms of living beings or, more simply and thus more probably, forms of one living being: God. Let’s look at each step in turn.

Consider the fact that, when considering a multitude of various performances of a work (for example, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), we see all these efforts as performances of the same work. Some performances are mediocre, some impressive, some terrible. But how can we make sense of these insights and comparisons if the work isn’t something that exists independently of the various efforts to play it?

If we don’t think we can then we might take a Platonist approach to music which, as Julian Dodd nicely puts in his book Works of Music (Oxford, 2007), holds that “works of music do not depend for their existence on having occurrences; that such works are discovered, rather than brought into existence, by their composers; and that works of music cannot be destroyed” (106). He continues: “Musical Platonism holds that any work of music exists at all times (if it exists at all): even at times at which no performance, playings, or other occurrences of the work exist, and even at times when there are no copies of the score or memory traces of the work.” (106).

Now, since they exist at all times, and there were times when humans didn’t exist, musical works would be independent of human minds. This would help account for the experience, very familiar to artists, of discovering and unraveling musical works that appear to be there already. Of course, we need not exclude the role of composers, performers, and listeners. According to Dodd, we can, on the one hand, rightly attribute to composers the achievement of adding a work to our culture for appreciation and, on the other hand, rightly attribute performances to a performer (130-131). And Christopher Norris, in his book Platonism, Music, and the Listener’s Share (Continuum, 2006), suggests we embrace a qualified Platonist approach that includes both the independence of the work and what he refers to as the “listeners share” or the “phenomenology of musical experience” (1). This share would reveal that “works necessarily depend for their continuance and repeated realization from one performance or audition to the next upon certain subjectively salient modalities of human perceptual and cognitive response” (1).

But what are these works that are discovered? Well, we might think of them as eternally existing abstract things or types, like numbers, that can be tokened or given particular physical manifestations in space and time. This is the approach Dodd takes. But then there would be no way to argue that such disembodied works are alive since abstract types are not alive. But is this the only option when asking how musical works might exist independently of human minds?

Well, we could think of them as properties of non-human minds of some sort. But are we to believe that works of music are intentional states of an indefinite number of beings to whom we can relate? This seems unnecessarily complicated for sure. Perhaps a simpler and thus more probable option is to posit one mind whose possibilities and ideas we can access to some degree. Now this one mind need not be God. But a theistic option appears to have some interesting benefits. In sections 43-44 of his Monadology (1714) G. W. Leibniz writes:

43. It is farther true that in God there is not only the source of existences but also that of essences, in so far as they are real, that is to say, the source of what is real in the possible. For the understanding of God is the region of eternal truths or of the ideas on which they depend, and without Him there would be nothing real in the possibilities of things, and not only would there be nothing in existence, but nothing would even be possible.

44. For if there is a reality in essences or possibilities, or rather in eternal truths, this reality must needs be founded in something existing and actual, and consequently in the existence of the necessary Being, in whom essence involves existence, or in whom to be possible is to be actual. (Translation by Robert Latta)

Here we see that possibilities are states of God’s eternal mind. This mind, being infinite, has all possibilities in his understanding for us to access to an extent. Musicians can access various musical possibilities just as those who enjoy music can. The objects and events of the physical world help us access these possibilities. Perhaps we can say that music, as heard, is our intentional and imaginative unfolding of one of God’s intentional mental states triggered by the presence of sound waves. Since these possibilities are states of an eternally living being we can begin to make some sense of how, on the one hand, we feel we are in the presence of something living and, on the other hand, how the works eternally exist independently of us as in the Platonism account. This approach may also make sense of a few things a Platonic approach will find elusive:

(1) How we can all access not only the same work of music but perhaps, given that we are placing the work in an intentional mind, the same qualitative spirit of a work. After all, God is unique and thus a musical work in his mind would be both unique and have a certain qualitative feel.

(2) How works may be understood as having a normative dimension independently of us as well. Norris claims that “musical Platonism cannot be treated entirely on a par with Platonist conceptions of logic, mathematics and the formal sciences, since it must – inescapably – involve some reference to the way that music does (or should) register with a duly attentive or musically responsive listener” (21). If we construe this should, this normative dimension, as something we discover then we seem to be pushed towards a view that grounds musical works in something with normative capacity. And God, as an all good being, will certainly fit the bill. This opens up the idea that perhaps some works are, as it were, smiled or frowned upon by God and we can, if we are discerning listeners, come to experience this normative dimension and decide for ourselves how we will react to it.

(3) How works of music have something of their own closely entwined with mental states which we saw in Scruton’s account above, namely, intentionality: they are about things unlike, on the one hand, abstract entities and, on the other hand, the materials (sound waves, instruments, radios, etc.) used to convey what is intended.

(4) How works of art speak to us and offer us a strange kind of fellowship. After all, if they are expressions of God’s mind, and we are minds, maybe there is indeed a way to relate to them in more than metaphorical ways.

(5) How musical works can be experienced as gifts given to us. In The Soul of the World Scruton writes: “When the world looks back at me with my eyes, as it does in aesthetic experience, it is also addressing me in another way. Something is being revealed to me, and I am being made to stand still and absorb it. It is of course nonsense to suggest that there are naiads in the tress and dryads in the groves. What is revealed to me in the experience of beauty is a fundamental truth about being – that being is a gift” (139). If musical works are mental states of a giving God then we might make some sense of this experience.

(6) How we come to access these independently existing works. One of the problems of Platonism with regard to abstract entities like propositions, sets, and numbers is this: how do we have any contact with these abstract entities that are immaterial and have no causal powers at all? Don’t we have to be causally connected to that which we come to know? And a similar problem could be raised with regard to Platonically construed musical works: how can we access them? But if they are intentional states of God, and God is a causal agent to whom we can relate, then perhaps these works can be accessed via a divine illumination from God.

(7) How infinite interconnections between musical forms can be discovered: they are all interconnected structures in God’s infinite mind which, while it may have conceptual parts, has no separable physical or metaphysical parts and is thus simple.

(8) How particular works have infinite inexhaustibility or the capacity to keep providing new experiences that revel new insights and feelings. In his Critique of Judgment Immanuel Kant argued that this inexhaustibility is a condition for formal beauty and likened it to an English garden that can always been experienced in new ways (unlike a French garden which, while amazing for a while, tends to get boring given the imposition of too much regularity, order, geometry, etc.). This, to me, is one of the more mysterious aspects of art that, as mentioned above, may give rise to the notion that certain works can be akin to good friends of whom we never tire. In his book How Pictures Complete Us (Stanford, 2016), Paul Crowther notes, in his rich theological interpretation of visual art, that “the universe is not the outcome of a linear process, however much it appears that way from a finite perspective. We should see it, rather, as emergent from the divine essence.” He then links this emergence to visual art: “Tracing the emergence of this three-dimensional meaning from the planar base is a dynamic and inexhaustible activity. In other words, the open character of emergent meaning of the pictoral artwork gives its created ontology a symbolic kinship with God’s creation and sustaining of the universe” (153). Perhaps something similar can be said for musical works: the inexhaustible meaning that emerges from our encounter with sound waves reveals the presence of God’s inexhaustible creative mind and power. And, since God’s transcendence is necessarily ineffable to an extent, we can make some sense of the partial ineffability of music as well.

To be sure, plenty of questions can be raised about this obviously controversial account. Are we prepared to accept that works eternally exist independently of us? Wouldn’t this make our view of reality far more complicated than just accepting there is a physical world? And wouldn’t musical Platonism fail to make sense of the experience many musicians have of creating, rather than discovering, their works? How could we construe ownership of works? And how could we access these abstract works in the first place? Once we move to the theistic option we can ask: Does God really exist? How can we adequately determine his nature and his relation to us? How exactly can we access the musical works in his mind? What about ugly and demonic works? Could they really be grounded in a God who is presumably all good and supremely beautiful? And why can’t some people appreciate music or even care about it at all? Has God forsaken them in not offering them the gift of music? And so on.

In any case, I hope this brief overview of three options regarding the life of music was helpful in getting you to think about these interesting issues for yourself.

For my version of a divine conceptualist argument for God’s existence that incorporates some of the above ideas, go here.

For my post on the divine illumination in Augustine, go here.

For more on Leibniz’s insights about God, truth, and possibilities go here.

For a post that explores whether or not we really need melody in music go here.

For a post on demonic music, go here.

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